How might a developing nation regard California’s century-old marriage with its dams? At first glance, rather enviously. Through massive undertakings — like Friant, Oroville, Folsom, or Shasta — dams have turned the arid Central Valley in the US into a US$26B agricultural supermarket to the world. Dams quench the thirst of coastal cities from San Diego to San Francisco with billions of gallons of fresh water annually. Dams let Sacramento escape regular devastating floods. And above all, dams power the state’s aerospace, microchip, film or ‘dotcom’ industries with an average 40B MWh of electricity: more than coal, oil, geothermal waste, wind and solar energy sources combined.

In short, it was through dams, not gold, that a sleepy Western territory became the equivalent of the world’s seventh richest country. It seems natural that developing nations — Laos, Brazil, India, or my own native South Africa — may logically follow suit with similar results. Except for one thing.

As we scout future reservoirs or draft engineering blueprints, we look over our shoulder to see California slightly adjust the course of its own development. It now leads the world in a new growth industry: dam removal.

Overseas, we are somewhat startled to read the recent US headlines: Bureau of Reclamation to undo US$1.5B multipurpose Auburn dam. Pacific Gas & Electric spends US$25M to remove five hydro dams on Battle Creek. Ranchers tear up four irrigation dams on Butte Creek. The State Farm Bureau supports legislation to systematise removal of obsolete dams. Ventura County, State and Federal governments jointly start what may be the largest removal project in history at the 58m Matilija dam, making it merely the 48th removal in the state so far. And like many, we ask: what is going on here?

This ebb seems to cut, like a riptide, against global currents where dams are still monuments, where one billion people lack clean water, where two billion lack electricity, where 1600 large dams are under construction, and thousands more planned. Even California’s highly regulated rivers must squeeze enough water and power for 15 million new residents arriving in the Golden State over the next two decades.

All governments must meet escalating demands for water, but none can afford investing monetary and political capital behind expensive, controversial dam projects if they are only going to have to ‘undo’ some of them, at equal expense and controversy, a decade later. Our democratic mandate, whether California or South Africa, is do it right the first time, in the right place, for the right reasons or not do so at all.

Unanswered questions

So, then we face the questions: how? Where? Which type of dam? How can we upgrade existing structures? And who decides? To answer these challenges — to lower economic, ecological, political and social risks posed by new or existing dams — some 40 representatives from industry, universities, science, governments, human rights groups, environmentalists, financiers and foundations all helped set up the World Commission on Dams, which, for full disclosure, I chair. They set our table at the centre of a crowded boxing ring.

The Commission, collectively representing each powerful constituency, must agree on the role of, alternatives to, decisions about, and need for dams. It shuns the ‘teeth’ of regulations forced from above. Instead it carries the weight of deep experience (assessing 150 large dams, 17 thematic reviews); hard evidence (fundamental reviews in 128 documents); broad consensus (68 WCD Forum members from 34 countries); and rigorous new criteria and guidelines. If voluntarily adopted, it may transform decisions over US$43B spent on dams each year, including, among hundreds around the world, those in California.

We analysed seven dammed river basins on four continents under a microscope; studied the experience with dams in Russia, China and India; and evaluated trends through a cross-check survey of dams worldwide. Based on the distilled evidence from this voluminous global review, the WCD will make authoritative recommendations for how governments can undertake the construction, operation, overhaul and even decommissioning of new and existing dams.

It will not specifically target any one country or industry sector, nor does it seek to pass judgement or lay blame in hindsight. But its findings will narrowly focus on, and cross-cut, all aspects of decisions on large dams, and will provide options for governments to develop while still meeting political, economic, ecological and social demands at the same time.

The Commission’s independent work will remain strictly confidential until we release our final report in mid-November 2000, in London, UK. We next turn over authority to the WCD Forum. We will ensure that it has enough strength, direction and interest to help our vigorous young seedling take root in fertile soil, then quickly disband.

Does that mean that there is nothing to be learned from the Commission until November? That all is kept secret? To the contrary. We pride ourselves on our transparency. Much of the knowledge base, ranging from consultations and submissions to reviews and studies, and from which the Commission will draw and develop its findings, is now available on the WCD website. Furthermore, when viewed from overseas, California’s own dam conundrum, like most countries, accurately illustrates some of the very same tensions we raise, explore, and address worldwide: how or where do we sustainably develop through dams, and how do we make dams sustainable? Every government, small or large, now recognises new forces that shape hard decisions over construction, operation, commission, or even decommissioning of dams (see panel).

This is merely a glimpse of some of the complexities with which we are wrestling. But what we are finding is that dams are neither inherently ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, but thinking makes them so.

Our thinking evolves in the light of new evidence, new demands, new technology options and broad, inclusive democratic consensus. For the first time in history, we can tap all four of these sources, fill up a vessel, and lead thirsty governments to this cool, fresh water. But only the governed can make it drink.

Changing times for the hydro industry: future concerns

Tens of thousands of dams already exist in California (800,000 worldwide); most of them function very well as designed. But some are eventually, unsafe, silted in, or no longer necessary. Before building new dams, we must first explore what to do with, and how to improve, existing dams.
New options and alternatives emerge daily. Central Valley farmers in the US replaced the Butte Creek dams with a simple irrigation pump. Elsewhere, aquifers store more and evaporate less than reservoirs. The drop in solar power costs, from US$70/watt to US$4/watt, helps to offset dams removed on Battle Creek. Sometimes these options merely temper the kind and size of dam, but they must be looked at equally.
Bureaucracies grow slight, tight and transparent. The days of big centralised government are numbered. Energy deregulation removes barriers to competition; large subsidies for massive projects like Auburn are drying up. Likewise, decisions over dams like Matilija grow not from smoke-filled offices in Washington bureaucracies but from on-site, outdoor hearings in Ventura, US.
Ecological and social needs now equal economic needs. A century ago, O’Shaughnessy dam in Yosemite, US, gave birth to California’s Sierra Club; in the 1960s Glen Canyon dam turned it into a national force. The Endangered Species Act now fuels pitched battles against both. These values are not going away, and somehow must be incorporated into plans for new and existing dams.
Native or indigenous communities and political neighbours exercise their rights to equity. Tribes, like the Pyramid Lake Paiute, across the border in Nevada, US, have begun to demand promised but neglected water and fishing rights to Truckee river water, whose source lies, and is first dammed, upstream in California.
Society’s values shift over time. Commercial fishermen push to remove dams to restore the now rare, but once abundant salmon runs. Rafting may draw more tourism than houseboats. Matilija may tumble because the Southern California beaches in the US (for surfers, homes and tourists) need the sand locked behind the dam.
At the same time, with fewer additional greenhouse gas emissions than competing power sources like oil, coal and gas, the network of existing hydro dams offer an opportunity to upgrade and produce more power.
Power companies have reported multi-million US dollar savings by working with local communities and environmental activists on a holistic watershed basis, and in advance of dam relicensing proceedings. Savings are then passed on to consumers and the watershed ecosystem.
Gains in efficiency are being reported to lower costs, squeeze more ‘crop per drop’ from irrigation and put the excess saved water back into in-stream flow where fish and other aquatic species can benefit.
With deeper ecological and scientific understanding and increased technical flexibility on the grid, managers may better integrate peak flows on daily or seasonal cycles to work with the rhythms of nature, rather than against it.